Patriots vs. Chargers Preview

Inglewood, CA, Sunday, December 6, 2020 – New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) scoops up a blocked field goal as Los Angeles Chargers punter Ty Long (1) give chase in vain for a touchdown on the last play of the first half at SoFi Stadium. (Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The New England Patriots return to SoFi stadium on Sunday to take on the Chargers in a game that could forecast the rest of the season for the Pats. These two teams met last year in a lopsided 45-0 at SoFi that featured the ineptitude of the Chargers special teams. The Patriots returned a punt for a touchdown along with a blocked field goal. Rookie Justin Herbert had a rough showing against Bill Belichick and the Patriots offense wasn’t asked to do much.

The Patriots are coming off their most complete showing of the season, dismantling the Jets 54-13. The Chargers are coming off a bye. The last game the Chargers played was a 34-6 loss at the hands of the Ravens. Were both outcomes an anomaly on each team’s radar? Or is it symbolic of what is to come for both?

Lingering over the game will be the injury reports on both sides. The Patriots listed 15 players on the injury report throughout the week. The Chargers were relatively healthy before workhorse back Austin Ekeler missed the final two practices with a hip injury. Head coach Brandon Staley has vocalized optimism Ekeler will play but time will tell. If he can’t go or is less than 100%, it will greatly benefit the Patriots.

This year features two very different teams but the same inept LA special teams. Herbert has looked like the future of the league at QB while the Patriots now feature a rookie QB. The Chargers are trying to prove they belong with the top dogs in the conference while the Patriots are trying to beat someone other than the Texans and Jets. This game could be the turning point of the season for the Patriots, whether good or bad.

Without further ado, the game preview presented in the typical “who has the advantage when…” format.

Patriots Run the Ball

Staley was brought in because of his prowess as a defensive coach. That reputation has yet to provide results for the Chargers run defense. LA has allowed 19 explosive runs this season (runs of 10 yards or more) and now gets to face the league leader in 20+ yard runs in Damien Harris. The New England running offense has jelled since the Texans game. The Chargers will be getting back talented DL Justin Jones from IR but their run defense is more than a one-man problem. They rank 31st in the league in EPA/play against the run (EPA measures situational data like down, distance, time in the game, etc. to produce a numerical point value a team is expected to produce on a specific play).

The Chargers also utilize a nickel defensive package (5 defensive backs) on 59.2% of their defensive snaps. The Patriots can utilize motion sets to give themselves favorable matchups in the box with both tight ends on the field. The Chargers have struggled to get opposing teams into 3rd and long situations. Their inability to stop the run is the reason why. If the Pats can avoid those situations, it will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.

Advantage: Patriots

Patriots Pass the Ball

For all their shortcomings against the run, the Chargers boast a top 10 passing defense headlined by All-Universe safety Derwin James. Staley’s defensive system focuses on limiting explosive plays in the passing game first and hoping for a trickle-down effect from there. The Chargers have been good in this category despite playing the Chiefs, Raiders, Cowboys, and Ravens already this season. The Chargers are a zone-heavy team, running zone on 66.3 percent of their snaps. They play primarily cover 3 with cover 1 being their second most played coverage scheme. The Patriots have had success historically attacking cover 3 with their tempo-based short passing game.

Last week Mac Jones showed he wasn’t afraid to attack cover 1 either, taking shots down the sidelines to WR’s Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. The Chargers pass rush, despite having game wrecker Joey Bosa, has lacked throughout the season. Part of this has stemmed from their inability to get teams into 3rd and long situations where pass rushers make their money. They rank 27th in total pressures and 29th in pressure rate despite Staley’s propensity to bring pressure on 3rd down. His 40.4% blitz rate on 3rd  down ranks fourth in the league. Mac has been improving by the week against pressure. The Patriots’ offensive line has improved drastically in their ability to protect Mac Jones. If the Pats can protect their rookie QB, he’ll find places to go with the ball.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Chargers Run the Ball

This will largely hinge on Ekeler’s availability. Backup man Larry Rountree III is talented in his own right but a few pegs below Ekeler’s ability. The Chargers lost starting RG Oday Aboushi in their week 5 win over the Browns. His absence was felt against Baltimore; the Chargers’ running backs mustered only 14 yards on 10 carries. This led to the Chargers abandoning the running game early but the problems were evident. They have also struggled on early downs, ranking 26th in EPA/play on 1st down. They are downright abysmal on second and long, ranking 31st in that category.

The Patriots are towards the back of the pack in defending the run, ranked 22nd in the league. However, this has been an area where the team has been steadily improving. The health of LB’s Ja’Whaun Bentley, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy along with run stuffing DT Davon Godchaux bears watching.

Advantage: New England Patriots (health on both sides a potentially huge factor)

Chargers Pass the Ball

Herbert has taken the league by storm, and for good reason. Herbert has 14 touchdowns against 4 interceptions while throwing for 1771 yards. The Chargers embrace their talented second-year QB, letting him throw early and often. However, this hasn’t been a strength as previously noted. The Chargers rank 26th on EPA/play on first-down passes and a negative EPA/play on play action. Furthermore, Herbert can extend plays with his legs. The Pats must be disciplined in their pass rush integrity and keep him contained. The loss of Aboushi also places a spotlight on the protection upfront. To this point, the Chargers have allowed the third-lowest pressures of Herbert’s dropbacks (19.2%).

The Chargers also feature a talented quartet of pass catchers in Austin Ekeler, Jared Cook, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.  A majority of the Chargers’ offensive snaps come from 11-personnel, keeping all four playing for most of their snaps. The loss of slot corner Jonathan Jones may be acutely felt this week. The questions surrounding the health of Devin McCourty also bear watching. My feeling is Mills draws Allen while Jackson goes against big-bodied Mike Williams. The Pats won’t be able to stop this passing attack but need to limit the big plays.

Advantage: Chargers

Special Teams

The Chargers were hoping for an improvement of last year’s historically bad special teams unit when they hired new special teams coordinator Derius Swinton II. And it has improved. Marginally. They currently rank 31st in EPA. The Patriots have been a streaky group with outstanding play and game-breaking mistakes on their third team. The Pats can’t hope for a repeat of last year’s (LA missed FG, blocked FG TD, punt return TD) but could see a distinct advantage in this phase. The Chargers recently replaced their kicker with ex-Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins. Hopkins has struggled with kicks from 50+ in his career. His struggles in all aspects led to his release from Washington. The Pats would benefit from making the Chargers coaching staff decide between kicking long field goals or punting.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Coaching

Belichick has shown that he means business this year. He has developed plans that stifled Tom Brady and kept the Pats in the game against the Cowboys. Last week he even showed signs of aggression by finally going for it on a fourth down. And he dismantled Herbert last year. Staley is extremely aggressive himself this year, leading the league in fourth-down attempts. His aggressive style has led to mostly success but was at the core of the loss to the Ravens. The Pats were aggressive last week and need to continue that momentum going forward.

Advantage: New England Patriots

Prediction

Despite the breakdown being heavy to the Patriots’ advantage, the Chargers have been one of the best teams in the conference through seven weeks for a reason. They have an elite quarterback and perfect complementary parts while featuring an aggressive coaching style that oozes confidence. The Pats have been an up and down team but are trending more up as of late. The Patriots will need to take advantage of hidden yards in special teams and maybe steal a possession with a blocked or missed kick. A successful Patriots running attack will shorten the game and limit Herbert’s possessions. This game has the feeling of being a low-scoring drag-‘em-out affair.

Pats win 23-21 as Hopkins misses a 54-yard field goal as time expires.

Author: Colby Fauser

Passionate Patriots fan, current Intensive Care Nurse. Played ball through college under multiple coaches now in NFL ranks. Love the game and love teaching it. Hope to spread some knowledge and laughs through writing!

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